A typical run-through of Top Girls
, one of several productions currently rehearsing for the Loeb Experimental Theatre, is initiated with an unusual ritual. The largely female cast and crew face each other in a circle and begin doing stretches. They start off with a relatively simple assortment of nerve-defraying arm extensions and breathing exercises, but soon begin emitting a guttural tribal chant. In moments, the scene of calm has erupted into a fervent sequence of chest-beating, head-twirling and tongue-extending, all done in approximate unison by ten normally rational individuals. Director Aoife E. Spillane-Hinks ’06 orchestrates the catharsis, encouraging her cast to relax and “let out their bellies.” The ceremony finally ends with a “shakedown,” where limbs are spastically shaken one by one as everyone counts down to zero.
What exactly does this do for the Top Girls? Before these exercises, the cast was a screwball swarm of hysterical giggles and rowdy line readings. But now they are firmly seated around a dinner table, their focus immersed in the performances and the improvement of their as yet imperfect accents. For the members involved in this production, there is a time for inanity and a time for gravity, and amidst the flurry of vaguely cultish behaviors, they find that clear transition.
THE EX IN FULL SWING
For the players of Top Girls and other shows under the auspices of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC), the Spring 2004 season is well underway at the Loeb Experimental Theatre. Since late February, the Ex stage has been graced by improv troupe the Immediate Gratification Players (IGP) and their Comedy Unthunk show, as well as brief runs of Betrayal, directed by Benjamin J. Toff ’05, who is also a Crimson executive, and Private Eyes, directed by Alli C. Smith ’06
Currently playing in an extended run through Sunday is Roberto Zucco, the brainchild of director Ben D. Margo ’03 -’04. Based on a British translation of French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes’ final work, Zucco tells the story of its titular serial killer who murders, burgles and rapes apparently without motive. John C. Dewis stars as the enigmatic Zucco, alongside Sara L. Bartel ’06 in the female lead role of Girl.
Margo says he was initially attracted to the play for its “little boy against the world story.” He adds that he also admired, “the clarity of the script. It’s pretty direct; not much dicking around with subtext.”
But for supposedly lucid writing, the show itself has drawn a multitude of interpretations from its cast and crew. Co-producer Alex H. Bush ’05-’06 emphasizes Roberto Zucco’s melodramatic aspects, noting that “it needs to be theater. There’s a lot of cruelty in the way the characters talk to each other that’s very theatrical and very unrealistic.”
The play’s dramaturg, Scott R. Wilson ’04, sees parallels to the current social climate. “Of course Zucco was a killer, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say he was a terrorist in a way,” says Wilson. “Throughout the play, there are these enigmatic pronouncements that Zucco makes about being a secret agent. We’re left in the dark as to whether or not that’s the case. But the government has taken on a sort of role with the Patriot Act, where there’s a lot of room to believe today that someone you know could be working for the government.”
Perhaps the most interesting interpretation belongs to Alan D. Zackheim ’06, who plays the dual roles of Old Gentleman and Girl’s Brother. “The show itself is in a lot of ways a reflection of Ben Margo’s personality,” says Zackheim. “A lot of his sense of humor, things that he doesn’t necessarily expect the audience to get but just finds really awesome, he’s more than happy to throw into the show.”
Much of the show relies on the murky visual ambience created by the production’s lighting and set designers, a difficult task given the limited rehearsal time afforded on the actual Ex stage. After rehearsing in various spaces for a month, the players are only given three days to pull all of the diverse elements of the production together.
“Early on in the process, rehearsal on any given evening can be up in the quad or down by the river or in some of the rehearsal rooms at HRDC, so you’re always transposing this idea of a set around with you,” says Zackheim. “It’s always one of the big frustrations that all college theater has.”
However, the participants assert that the transition has been natural, if a little hectic, and their faith in Ben Margo’s direction is evident. “He’s really interested in creating the piece that he wants to create,” says Zackheim of Margo’s vision. “It’s not his goal to try to please anybody.”
As Roberto Zucco wraps up, the creators of Top Girls will be putting the final touches onto their show, which runs from April 8-17. The play’s conceit involves a successful early ’80s businesswoman who invites a number of literary and historical figures to dinner to celebrate a recent promotion. The ensemble includes a Japanese courtesan, a character from Canterbury Tales, a female pope, a woman from a Bruegel painting and a Victorian world traveler. Largely set around a single dining table, the six women discuss their past exploits, often finding themselves faced with the problem of defining their “womanhood” independent of its conflicts with “manhood.”
Spillane-Hinks was introduced to the material years ago, when she literally stumbled upon the play. “The way that I discovered Top Girls was that I stepped on it one day at my house. So I picked it up, and I remember reading this at fourteen and thinking, ‘This is amazing.’”
She began preparing for the show as far back as summer break, gradually building a staff of familiar faces from past shows. “Basically it’s a whole process of courtship,” she says. “So you convince everyone how incredible the show is, how incredible the ideas are, how together you are as a director.”
A first-time director for HRDC, Spillane-Hinks knew landing the show at the Ex might prove a bit of a challenge. She admits that if the Ex hadn’t accepted Top Girls, she couldn’t have performed it at another venue due to the considerable resources specific to the stage. However, the process of application, admittance and now direction has been an incredibly “In acting, you work on your technique and your analysis, but the fact is the director has the ultimate say,” she says. “So to have that kind of intellectual agency in the process, as the director, it’s really wonderful.”
Though the show constantly grapples with weighty themes, Spillane-Hinks quells any fears that Top Girls is merely an intellectual discourse rather than character-based theater. She says that during her first reading, she was “struck by the simultaneously huge issues of politics and culture and gender that were going on in the play while at the same time, the basic human relationships were not compromised.”
Co-producer Katherine J. Thompson ’05 also highlights the show’s humor, drawn largely from the anachronistic clash of the characters. “It’s hilarious and at times confusing, but in this great way where it’s a mix of ideas sort of coming at you from all directions,” says Thompson. “It’s also got amazing accents. I would almost see it just for that.”
The Mainstage, the Loeb’s other, significantly larger venue will kick off their spring season the week following spring break. In addition to the musical Sunday in the Park with George, which will run from the final week of April until May 8th, the Mainstage will also house a fresh take on Tom Stoppard’s popular play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for a two-week run from April 9-17.
The Mainstage—arguably the most coveted and most technically challenging theatre space available for undergraduates—has been embraced by director Jeremy W. Blocker ‘04, who brings experience as a producer, two-time Loeb Ex director and former HRDC vice president to the show.
“Experience is key for any director trying to tackle the Mainstage,” Blocker wrote in an e-mail. And to that end, Blocker says he has emphasized preparing and planning productive rehearsals and creating an atmosphere that allows for the creativity of collaborating members to flourish as crucial jobs for a director in any setting.
But Blocker says his experiences in the Harvard theater community have proven especially useful in directing the Mainstage, as it has enabled him to seek out assistance when he needs it, from those with greater familiarity with the space.
“I have experience asking for help and I know who I can turn to in various situations. When it comes down to it, every student director is just that—a student,” he says.Among those Blocker turns to are the professionals at the American Repertory Theatre (ART), who share the space with undergraduates during the regular season and work with students in mounting the Mainstage.
“It’s a difficult space to tackle, and it helps to have a staff that knows the territory and a cast that is prepared to face the challenge,” he says. Blocker’s production team include Mainstage veterans Sarah E. Curtis ’05 and Jess M. Matthews ’05, and Executive Producer Claire A. Pasternack ’05, who is also a Crimson editor.
The cast also includes seasoned Harvard theater community members, including Geordie F. Broadwater ’04, who directed last semester’s Mainstage show, Temptation, and Bobby A. Hodgson ’05, the current president of the HRDC.
Hodgson and Broadwater star as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively, taking on two of contemporary theater’s most celebrated antiheros. Stoppard’s black comedy and one of his most popular works to date, follows Hamlet’s hapless and disoriented friends who wander through the Danish court, between England and their imminent death—in events that seem always controlled by forces beyond their control.
“It’s a play about feelings of powerlessness and ignorance of the world around you,” Hodgson says. The themes of play will be reflected not only in the interactions between actors, he says, but in the inventive stage set-up that will incorporate trick staircases and M.C. Escher-inspired backdrops.
“[Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead] is a difficult piece—something that we are rediscovering in rehearsal every day-but it is an accessible one,” Blocker says.
He adds that “the space allows us to fully create this world in which we are setting the play—a world that grows out of confusion and fear in which up is down and down is up and our protagonists have no control.”
In order to address the “tech crunch,” or the shortage of technical assistance for various Loeb productions, the HRDC introduced a new tech requirement this fall that obligates members to contribute to the technical aspect of a production during the semester.
The tech requirement was implemented by former technical liaison for the HRDC E. Peyton Sherwood ’04, who said the idea for the requirement came from discussions within the community. Attendees at one of the HRDC’s open meetings raised the idea when the discussion turned to the perennial tech crunch experienced by shows, especially as performance time approaches. Sherwood said he and other HRDC members had previously considered implementing such a requirement, but was not sure it would have enough support from the community at large.
Now in its second semester in effect, the requirement has been received with largely positive response from actors and techies alike. According to Sherwood, 90 percent of the 97 actors in the Loeb participated last semester, whereas in the past, only approximately 18 percent of actors were similarly involved.
“There’s a little less mad stress about making sure that technically [productions] would happen, and that allows for more thoughtfulness than might have been possible in past seasons,” Hodgson says. Technical tasks that fulfill the requirement include carpentry, lighting, loading sets, and sundry other tasks that many productions scramble to complete with the dearth of consistent technical hands and time constraints.
Despite the added responsibility for actors involved with the Loeb, the response from actors has remained largely positive. For Spillane-Hanks, a regular actor and light designer before her directing stint, the requirement has not affected casting for her show, though she says she realizes that some members of the community have reacted to the requirement with greater reservation.
“I met some actors who really are skeptical about it,” she says, “who say ‘I’m here to act. I respect tech people, but that’s not what I’m here to do.’”
But many actors also cite the benefits of contributing to the technical aspect of outside productions as an experience that enriches their own understanding of theater and the theater community at Harvard in general.
“My sense is that many of the actors view the requirement as a way of giving back to the community by working on each others’ shows. The requirement helps to tighten the community while playing a large part in filling the under-stocked tech positions,” says Blase E. Ur ’07, Sherwood’s successor as technical liaison.
Both Ur and Sherwood also point out that requiring HRDC members to work on other productions throughout the semester has opened up more avenues for contact, and in some cases, has helped create ties for future working relationships. Zackheim says he enjoys becoming part of a new cast and crew when he works towards his tech requirement. “It’s more a chance for the people in the limited world of Harvard theater to interact and co-mingle with each other,” he says.
Hodgson says the HRDC plans on further streamlining the tech requirement process, by offering fuller descriptions of available positions and making sure a balanced number of volunteers signs up for each show.
Though the tech problem remains one of the most important issues Hodgson says he and the HRDC board will address in the coming months, he insists that improvements will come largely from building on the successes of the tech requirement.
In addition to addressing technical shortages, Hodgson says he hopes to institutionalize the Visiting Director Project for subsequent semesters. He says student-actors have spoken often of the invaluable experience of working for Lorenzaccio in the fall under the auspices of professional visiting director Jay Scheib.
“The joy of that project is that every new director you get every year will bring a totally different view to acting and theater to the production,” he says. Next year, he says the HRDC anticipates Scott Zigler, an ART professional and Lecturer on Dramatic Arts to participate in the program.
Hodgson says he will also work to include expanding academic courses offerings in the dramatic arts for undergraduates. Though this semester saw a broader range of course offered, including courses on production dramaturgy and vocal production for the stage, Hodgson says there will be a push for more courses next semester. “I’m excited about this season,” Hodgson says. “We try to do our best to bring whatever people get excited about and make it happen.”
—Staff writer Michelle Chun can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Ben B. Chung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.